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John Thompson: Hechinger Report Explains the Reagan Roots of Obama Reform Efforts

NationatriskMany or most problems in urban education are rooted in Ronald Reagan’s “Voodoo Economics.” Yes, schools declined after the 1973 Energy Crisis started the deindustrialization of America. But, Reagan’s “Supply Side Economics” accelerated the tragedy by offering tax incentives for closing still-profitable factories. Families cratered in the face of the subsidized and rapid destruction of jobs, erasing so many hopes.

The implicit message of Sarah Garland’s Hechinger Report, Why Is a Reagan-Era Report Driving Today’s Education Reform?, is that the failure to improve schools is also rooted in Reaganism.

Garland notes, “the Republican-driven revolution is being driven home, as never before, by a Democratic president.” She recalls that many of the proposals in Obama’s RttT and  SIG programs seem to be “copied right out of the 1983 report [Reagan’s A Nation at Risk.]

Garland begins by linking the dubious policy of value-added evaluations with A Nation of Risk. I would gladly lay the blame for today’s testing mania on Reagan, but in the only weak part of her thought-provoking piece, I don’t think she nailed down the case for such a linkage. Clearly, however, Garland is correct in her observation, “the Obama administration appears to be doubling down on the standardized testing that critics say was a misinterpretation of A Nation at Risk.”

Similarly, Garland illustrates the test and punish mentality when quoting Chester Finn. Finn supports testing for teacher and student accountability because, “If there’s no sanction or punishment for not learning, then why work harder to learn more?”

I wonder if there is a reason, besides avoiding pain, why human beings might teach and learn?

Obviously, President Obama and Arne Duncan doubled down on the testing component of President Bush’s NCLB, but I am very grateful to Garland for the reminder of how much of a debt that Obama’s and Duncan’s policies owe to the Reagan era. It’s not just the way that both reform eras were built on fear about exaggerated education crises. She recalls the emphasis on teacher quality, longer school days, and standards. She even gets Duncan to admit that A Nation at Risk influenced his policies.

The most intriguing question that is implicit in Garland’s narrative is whether there is a connection between the magical thinking of today, where “High Expectations!” supposedly trump all, and the faith-based, Voo Doo-type mentality of Supply Side Economics. If you believe that Reagan could cut taxes, increase spending, and still reduce the deficit, then the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) has a school reform silver bullet for you.

The article’s best single observation illustrates the converse of such logic. Since Reaganism, too many policy people have tried to roll the dice in the expectation of some sort of cheap and easy solution for complex problems. But Garland cites the doubts of algebra teacher, Arielle Zern, “I don’t think there are just these few things that we change at every school and we improve every single school in the nation.” Repudiating the quick fix mentality that has become so much worse in recent decades, “There’s not one 100 percent solution, there’s one hundred 1 percent solutions.”-JT (@drjohnthompson) Image via.



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Just because Document A calls for x, y, and z and 25 years later x, z, and a few other things are implemented does not mean that Document A caused x and z to happen. I imagine one could find speeches of a Hungarian education minister in the 1970s calling for youth to study longer hours and for the state to require higher standards of achievement; I bet one could find 17th century sermons calling for the same. This does not prove that Barack Obama ever read any of these documents or had them in mind when he made certain policy decisions; you need evidence for that, such as his quoting or otherwise citing the document, to prove its influence, and the Hechinger Report article fails to provide any such evidence beyond Secretary Duncan's single word, "influential".

NCLB, a federal law, had far more influence than A Nation At Risk ever had, and it continues to have that pernicious influence. The Hechinger article could serve as a dictionary's illustration of "red herring".

Sarah Garland is an expert of proven excellence. She wrote a short first draft of history. More will come from all types of scholars on influences on Obama ranging from Reagan to TR. The way Garland begins her piece is tantamount to a hypothesis. She provides evidence for and against it. I was very impressed with her big picture presentation but I don't think she nailed the link to Reagan regarding testing. But, then again, she was careful in her choice of words when reporting what she learned through interviews. Yes, NCLB had far more influence and it was pernicious. I don't believe that word applies to A Nation at Risk.
I think Garland wrote a great piece initiating an important conversation. Her job isn't to nail a connection or proclaim that no connection exists. If my post prompted such intense feelings, complaints should be issued against me and/or my interpretation.

John, mine wasn't a complaint against you; I merely don't think she makes a sound historical argument for influence here. In other words, I agree with some of the criticisms that appeared in the comments section appended to the original article. I also note that there was no hysteria about the nation's schools in the 1980s, in my memory; that the Reagan administration paid very little attention to A Nation at Risk during the rest of his presidency (President Reagan wasn't particularly interested in education, and had large historical changes occupying his second term); that the first President Bush also didn't pay any special attention to A Nation at Risk, although he did want to be known as "the education president" and he did convene a national goals panel regarding education (chaired by Bill Clinton, if memory serves me correctly); and that President Clinton, while showing obvious concern for the state of the nation's education system, did not do anything close to as drastic in changing the federal government's relation to education as his succecessor.

Again, you make good points. In OKC A Nation at Risk was cited in hiring a superintendent to bring the Reagan Revolution to our schools and he brought a decade of testing. We were on a better track when NCLB derailed us. As commenter Joe Nathan said, (I paraphrase) the charter vision of the first decade was far more noble than today's.

But Garland articulated ideas, or at least asked questions, I've been wrestling with. While I don't oppose standards based reforms, and even if they were undermined by the NCLB and Obama testing mania,its not something that will get us 21st century schools. Why are reformers' minds still stuck in a rearguard action against the New Deal and the Great Society? Why is Obama committed to George W Bush's, and to a lesser extent, Reagan's approach to school reform and not to building humane and creative schools? That's the point I got from her opening anecdote with the principal bogged down with mean-spirited evaluations paperwork, and how she mourns the lost opportunity to be doing something more constructive with her effort.

John, that principal, you, and I have been around long enough to remember pre-NCLB teaching, which was more creative and fun, in general, than the test prep mania of today. Unfortunately, the business community has been recruiting younger teachers with no such memories as bases of comparison to execute their takeover plans, and time and demographics are on their side, so creative teaching is being lost. One thing Ronald Reagan believed in was federalism; that and the liberal (in the classical sense of the word) emphasis on freedom made him popular, at least in California, with younger voters. By contrast, George W. Bush was advertised as our first president as CEO, and Barack Obama, unfortunately, has continued with his predecessor's managerial imperialism in his education department in efforts that would have been anathema to Reagan.

Agreed. I'm now listening to NPR's Diane Rehm on similarities between 20somethings and 60somethings in wanting to do good more than do well. I think we're about to see a generational change, led by those who endured test prep, back towards the goals we aspired to but didn't achieve

A "crisis narrative" as the basis for Federal funding of pre-collegiate education goes back to the National Defense Education Act of 1958 that was stimulated by Sputnik. This was during the Eisenhower administration, but the narrative was bi-partisan.

It was Robert Kennedy's insistence on "evaluation" as a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 that brought "standardized achievement tests" into play. The tests were then no more "fit for purpose" than they are now, but the argument that "they are the best we have" prevailed then as it does now.

The "Nation at Risk" in 1983 fueled the crisis narrative and ironically "saved" the Department of Education's cabinet level status that the Reagan officials who commissioned the report intended the report to "kill."

The promise of "No Child Left Behind" in 2001 to teach all kids how to read by Grade 3 was a feasible commitment, but was hijacked by a combination bureaucratic, corporate, and academic special interests, with "teachers and teacher unions" held responsible for the failure.

The "Race to the Top" that began in 2009 relied on the premise that the US is not educationally competitive internationally. The "four assurances" that would produce "all students graduating from high school college and/or career ready" are currently in shambles, and here we are.

My point is that attributing the current status either to "Reagan Roots" or "Obama Reforms" is wishfully simplistic. Let's hope you are right about seeing a "change back to the goals we aspired to but didn't achieve."

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